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Posts Tagged ‘David Lynch’

“I love the idea of catching ideas. And they’re out there, millions and millions of ideas, and we don’t know them until they enter the conscious mind. And then we know them. And we see them and hear them and feel them. We know the mood of them, even if it’s just a small fragment of what could be a whole film or a painting or whatever. We fall in love with it for some reason. Something inside of us says, ‘This is a great idea for me.’ And then you write that idea down on a piece of paper in such a way that when you read what you wrote, the idea comes back in full. . . . I do equate catching ideas with the thing of fishing. You have to have patience. And I say a desire for an idea is like bait on a hook. So you are desiring or focusing. It could be daydreaming. Even when you’re walking around or moving about or talking, part of your mind is desiring ideas.”
—Filmmaker David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks)
MasterClass

Related links:
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)  
Inside the Breaking Bad Writers’ Room and How Bad Ideas Can Lead to Good Ideas
Postcard #182 (“You get ideas from being bored.”—Neil Gaiman)
Filmmaking Full of Magic & Ideas 

Scott W. Smith 

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“David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is the one Lynch film that found a mesmerizing middle ground between conventional Hollywood story structure and its director’s surreal dreamscapes. Yet today it seems on the verge of being forgotten, and that’s a shame.”
Kyle Smith, National Review

The Elephant Man is currently available on Amazon Prime and I had forgotten what an extraordinary film it is. The direction (David Lynch), the acting (John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud), the make-up (Christopher Tucker), the black & white cinematography (Freddie Francis), and the screenwriting (Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, Lynch) are brilliant.

It was nominated for eight Oscars and the winner of BAFTA Best Picture in 1981. I saw the film in theaters when I was a teenager and it definitely peaked my early interest in what films could be.

Rewatching the movie makes me want to go read the original source material on the life of John Merrick; The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Sir Frederick Treves and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu.

And here’s a super article that fills in more about the movie.

P.S. The Elephant Man opened in theaters in October 1980 and that was a great time to be a teenager newly interested in movies. This was the pre-internet days and VHS or cable TV hadn’t come into my world yet. My movie tastes were evolving so I went to see everything I could. Here’s an eclectic—and partial— sample of what I saw in theaters in 1980:

The Shining 
Caddyshack
Raging Bull
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
The Blues Brothers 
Airplane!
The Fog
Urban Cowboy (worth watching just to see Scott Glenn eat the worm)
Stir Crazy (Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor)
Coal Miners Daughter 
My Body Guard 
Private Benjamin 
Used Cars
The Gods Must be Crazy
Brubaker
The Blue Lagoon
Melvin and Howard
Atlantic City
Ordinary People (Oscars: Best Picture, screenplay, direction, supporting actor) 

Then there’s a list of 1980s films I didn’t catch until later Breaker MorantAltered States, Stardust Memories, and Alligator (early John Sayles screenplay). A couple that slipped by me I need to check out: Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation. And some interesting titles I never saw and probably never will; Cannibal Apocalypse, Fists of the White Lotus, Eaten Alive!, Blood Beach.

Cheers to the class of 1980. Lots of talent on display that year.

Related post:

Legacy Filmmaking (and Your Bank Account): “They’re never going to talk about your bank account when you’re dead, but they will talk about maybe the movies you left behind if you really cared about what you did.”—Frank Darabont

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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In light of my last post (Waiting to Be Great) I thought I’d gather 10 quotes on low-budget filmmaking that I found scattered throughout this blog over the years. I hope two or three inspire you on your filmmaking journey:

“My token advice [to aspiring filmmakers] is do it—make your own stuff. Whether it’s short films or whatever you can do, my advice is make your own stuff. I’m a real believer in preparation meets opportunity. When this opportunity (to write Bridesmaids) came along I really had been at this a long time…I was really prepared when this came along. I’m just a firm believer in ‘just do it.’ If you build it, he will come.”
Annie Mumolo 

Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Bridesmaids
Script Mag Podcast with Jenna Milly

“My example was Robert Rodriguez. In an interview he’d said, ‘Take stock of what you have and work with that. I had a bus and I had a turtle, so I worked them both into the script!’ I thought, I can get my hands on a convenience store…So I went home, and got my job back at the convenience store, fully intending to shoot the flick there. And I started writing like mad. I guess the first draft of it was about 164 pages, pretty long, so I handed it over to my friend Vincent. I was like, ‘What do you think?’ And he was like, ‘It’s really good. I think you should do it.’”
Kevin Smith
My First Movie
Edited by Stephen Lowenstein
page 76-77

“We’re in the midst of a digital revolution that allows you to shoot, edit, and distribute your films for virtually nothing. You have the possibility of creating a You Tube sensation…When I talk to student filmmakers, I tell them ‘Read as much as possible. Write as much as possible. Go read (director) Robert Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without a Crew. Get the mistakes out. Write bad. Direct bad. Learn how to tell stories as you do. Find that short film that says exactly who you are and the stories you want to tell. Make it and submit it to the festival process and realize that you may be great, you may be terrible. You won’t find out until you try to get other people to judge your work.’”
Jason Reitman
Orlando Sentinel
December 2009

“The industry is moving toward the big and the small. I think studios will always want a few of the high-budget high-profile projects. And there will be more and more of the micro-budget stuff. Everything in between is getting cut back, the marketing costs and production costs are too high, they don’t make sense in a world of YouTube, video games, cable programming, etc. By all means, try to make your way to one of those big-budget projects. But also take time to write and produce on the micro-budget scale, because that’s where we’re all going to live in a few years.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek)
Interview with John Robert Marlow (Published 12/2010

“What’s different now than when I started is you can make your own stuff now. It’s cheap enough that you can film your own movie, edit your own movie, and distribute your own movie if you want to. If it’s a big production you’re going to have to deal with compromise if you’re lucky, because you need a lot of resources. I always recommend keeping it small enough that you can maintain that control. Because even if you win the lottery and somebody buys your thing you’re not going to be happy with a lot of the compromises that are going to take place. It’s too painful. You have to counter balance that with how much heat it’s giving you or how much money you’re getting when you’re starting off and getting your foot in the door. But now I think more and more people are getting their foot in the door by doing really good work on a small scale. And then scaling up as people are looking for fresher voices.”
Producer/writer/director/Actor Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

“At this moment, anyone who dreams of becoming a filmmaker is lucky indeed. For the first time in the history of cinema, filmmaking does not need to be a capitalist enterprise. You no longer need millions of dollars or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. You are no longer beholden to someone writing a check. It no longer needs to be a business. it can be your artistic expression…Now you can buy a consumer-model digital camera and the image looks great…You can even shoot a pretty good-looking movie on your smartphone and then edit it on a laptop…You can post your film on YouTube, Vimeo, and any number of digital platforms and slowly build your audience.”
Edward Burns
Independent Ed

“When I meet with recent film school graduates, I remind them that whatever happens next in the industry won’t be something my generation does. It will happen among the 20-somethings, the narrative entrepreneurs who figure out how to make the next great thing. Rather than seeking permission to work in the existing industry, they’ll make their own.”
Screenwriter John August
What’s wrong with the business

“I wanted this movement to be like the French New Wave, in which directors told different types of stories and used the language of cinema a little differently, with smaller cameras on real locations.
Gary Winick (1961-2011)
Tadpole director and founder of InDigEnt

“I think there’s a slight trend toward embracing new cinema, non-Hollywood blockbuster cinema. It’s not erupting, but because of the Internet, I think people have more of a chance to get buzz going on alternative cinema, so I think it’s hopeful out there.”
David Lynch

“It’s good not to follow the herd. Go the other way. If everyone is going that way, go this other way. Yeah, you’re going to stumble, but you’re also going to stumble upon an idea nobody came up with… It’s lined with gold over there because nobody goes that way—it hasn’t been picked clean yet. And you’re going to stumble upon something. You’re going to stumble a few times, but you’re going to consistently stumble upon an idea no one’s come up with by going that way. I’ve always been that way. If everyone is going that way—like they know what they’re doing with purpose—I don’t know what I’d doing. I’m just going to go this other way. At least it’s a new frontier.”
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez
Interview with Tim Ferriss

Related posts:
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 1 Day
Shooting a Feature Film Over Dinner
Shooting a Feature Film in a Coffin

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Science has failed this world.”
From the H+ trailer

“Humanity goes offline. Survival goes on.”
Tagline on H+: The Digital Series website

Back in the good old days of 2005 a new website emerged on the Internet called You Tube. The user-generated website quickly became a place to upload everything from young people lip-syncing songs, to dogs chasing their tails, to teenagers complaining about their parents. A year after it was launched Google bought You Tube for $1.65 billion. A good return on the initial $11 million investment.

I remember in 2007 trying to convince a client to put a video we produced on You Tube and them saying, “We don’t want to be associated with that.”

Fast forward to today—August 8, 2012—a whole seven years after the first short video aired on You Tube and see how the website has evolved. Is there any group, any brand, any business, any company, any politician who doesn’t want to be assoicated with You Tube? You Tube has launched careers. Where would Justin Bieber be today without You Tube? It’s even damaged a few careers. The bottom line it has impacted our culture and its influence can’t be ignored.

Today happens to be the launch of  H+:The Digital SeriesA big budget series developed specifically for You Tube. In a day and age when more people would rather give up their TVs than their computer, this appears to be a glimpse into the future. And the producers are not just looking at a North America audience.

“Through YouTube we have a potential worldwide base far greater than any other content platform. I want anyone with an internet connection to be able to experience this world.”
Producer Byran Singer
Indiewire article by Valentina Valentini

Yes, that’s the same Bryan Singer  who directed The Usual Suspects and X-Men. We’re a long way the “Evolution of Dance” and “Charlie bit my finger.”

 “When you watch something on TV or in a theater, you have to wait to go to the fan boards to speculate. The YouTube channel platform allows us to centralize the viewing experience so the audience can simultaneously watch, comment, question, and even re-watch along with a worldwide audience.”
Bryan Singer

That quote would make David Lynch roll over in his grave—if he were dead. Lynch has been vocal against movies being watched on cell phones. I can’t imagine he’d like the idea of people commenting and interacting with each other during one of his movies.

Commenter 1: That is one ugly dude
Commenter 2: They need to apologize to elephants for calling him the elephant man
Commenter 3: LOL
Commenter 4: I know what I’m wearing next Halloween
Commenter 2: You’ll have a better chance at picking up a girl

No one said the future would look pretty. (In fact, can you think of any futuristic film where the future looks bright? Mad Max, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Metropolis, Children of Men, Fahrenheit 451. )

I don’t know how many viewers H+ will get today but I’m going to put Lynch down as a no-show. Will you be watching? Personally, I’m interested in seeing what the future looks like.

P.S. If you want some positive news for the future, I think these kinds of online shows will grow. And they’ll need screenwriters, directors, actors—the whole nine yards. Who knows what You Tube will look like in seven more years? Perhaps something like what Steven Spielberg predicted way back in 1999:

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.”
(Steven Spielberg in interview with Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show in 1999/ From the post Screenwriting Outside L.A. 101)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Who is this Ben Foster guy? And where did he come from?” That’s how my search started.

Every once in a while an actor comes around and kind of stops you in your tracks. It happens when you’ve never seen them in a film before and they don’t even appear to be acting. To use a directors phrase, they are in the moment. They make you ask, “Where did this actor come from?” I’ve only experienced that a half-dozen times in my life. A few performances I can think of are Denzel Washington in Glory, Scott Glenn in Urban Cowboy, Brad Pitt in Thema & Lousie, and Edward Norton in Primal Fear. And it happened last week when I saw Ben Foster in The Messenger.

So I wanted to know where Ben Foster came from and I was surprised to find that he was raised in a Fairfield, Iowa. (A town Mother Earth in 2006 listed first of “great places you’ve never heard of.”)  I was also surprised that, though Foster’s only 29, he’s been acting in films and TV for the past 14 years. I don’t recall ever seeing him before. Never saw him in Six Feet Under, 3:10 to Yuma, or Alpha Dog. And before he started acting in films and TV he was doing community theater in Iowa. And doing it well.

One article said he started doing theater when he was eight. According to IMBD he, “wrote, directed, and starred in his own play at the age of 12, a play that won second place in an international competition.As an actor friend once told me the important thing for an actor to do is “get stage time.” Apparently, Foster got a lot of that in Fairfield, a small town of less than 10,000 people that had four community theaters in it.* Fairfield is an unusual small town that I’ve called the San Francisco of Iowa. There is no shortage of art galleries and vegetarian restaurants thanks in part to Maharishi University that is based there. (I saw David Lynch speak there a couple of years ago.) Interesting place.

Foster attended the Interlochen Theater Arts Summer program in Interlochen, Michigan when he was 14, and at 16 dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles and began working on TV and movies right away. But keep in mind, by that time he had already been acting for eight years. I imagine he had more stage time that most 16 year olds in L.A.

In 2003 he won a Daytime Emmy for his role in Bang Bang You’re Dead. And before that break through performance in The Messenger he had been in over 80 TV episodes or movies, and in total, acting for 2o years. It all kinda goes back to the 10,000 rule again, doesn’t it?

As a related side note, last week here in Iowa I happened to go a community theater performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was an entertaining and great performance by at the Waterloo Community Playhouse. I’ve been to theaters of all kinds all over this country and one thing that impressed me about this performance was the worked showed. I mean that in a good way. The work they did showed in the set and costume design, the blocking, the performances, the lighting, the music, everything.

At the dress rehearsal I saw the director, Chuck Stiwill, said before the show that there was a cast of just over 50 people and twice that working behind the scenes. (Who knew it sometimes takes 150 people to put on a show in community theater?) Some of the people had been working on the show for two months. Rehearsals were nightly, and yes, there were several children in the show. Perhaps future Ben Foster’s getting in their stage time.

Dream big, but always remember to be faithful in the small things that come your way. And keep in mind that there are also writing opportunites in community and regional theaters around the country as well as summer stock shows.

P.S. And if you know of an 8-12 year olds who are interested in learning filmmaking check out Apple Camp.

*Today Fairfield is home to the 522-seat Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts.

Scott W. Smith

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(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade


“I don’t know if you saw the parting of the Red Sea with the chariots on the horses, I did stuff like that.”
Richard Farnswort
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After I posted the above Goldman comment yesterday on the post titled Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” it jogged my memory of another story about a career transition—both fictional and real life. The Grey Fox was released in 1982 about a decade after Butch Cassidy, but there are some similarities, mostly the concept of change in the Old West.

Richard Farnsworth plays a former stagecoach robber who is released from San Quintin after serving 33 years for his crimes. When he gets out in 1903 it’s a new world—the stagescoaches are out and movies are in. His character, Bill Miner, goes to see The Great Train Robbery and is inspired to take up his old ways yet with a new fresh angle.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen the film so I’ll rely on Rodger Ebert’s account to bring us all up to speed:

“(The Great Train Robbery.) That famous movie is only eleven minutes long, but long enough to make everything absolutely clear to Miner, who realizes he has a new calling in life, as a train robber. All of this could, of course, be an innocuous Disney movie, but it’s well-written and directed, and what gives it zest and joy is the performance by Richard Farnsworth, who plays Miner. Maybe you’ll recognize Farnsworth when you see him on the screen. Maybe not. His life has been one of those careers that makes you realize Hollywood is a company town, where you can make a living for years and never be a star. Farnsworth has been in more than three hundred movies.”
Roget Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, The Grey Fox
January 1. 1982

Though Farnsworth had been in more than 300 films, they were mostly as a stuntman. He doubled for some of Hollywood’s most well-known actors; Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Henry Ford, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen. You think he might have picked up a thing or two about acting from those fellows because after 30 years as a stuntman he began acting.

And he did it well enough to receive a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1979 for his role in Comes a Horseman and another Oscar nomination for Lead Actor in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (that was filmed right here in Iowa). He was 79 at the time of the nomination making him the oldest actor to ever receive a best actor nomination.

You may also remember his roles in The Natural, The Two Jakes, and Misery. I had the good fortune to meet Richard Farnsworth at a movie theater in Burbank some time in the 80s. Nothing exciting, he was just standing in front of me waiting to buy popcorn or whatever.

“Are you Richard Farnsworth?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I appreciate your work.”
“Thank You.”

He smiled and we shook hands. This was in the days before IMDB so I didn’t know in that simple exchange I was shaking hands with a man who was a real life Forrest Gump in the film industry having been in some legendary Hollywood productions;   Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Ten Commandments, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Roots, Bonanza, The Wild One,  Blazing Saddles, Spartacus and many others.

That means to one degree or another he worked with John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Mel Brooks, Howard Hawks,  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Cecil B. DeMille.

I don’t know how long stuntman work on a regular basis in Hollywood, but it has to take its toll on your body.  Farnsworth’s last credit as a stuntman was 1975 when he would have been 55. He was almost 60 when his acting career took off. He changed with the times.

By the way, the screenwriter of The Grey Fox, John Hunter,  was no spring chicken himself and was 71 when the movie was released.

Oh yeah, Farnsworth did stunts in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, too.

Scott W. Smith


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When The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien premieres tonight it marks the end of one era and the beginning of another one.

The show will no longer be taped at the NBC studios in Burbank, but across the way at Universal Studios. Though The Tonight Show began in New York in 1954, since 1972 the show had come from Burbank, California. Hosted by Johnny Carson from 1962 to 1992 I grew up listening to his references to “Beautiful downtown Burbank.” 

It was meant as a put down because Burbank was a rather bland area (some would say that bland would describe the entire San Fernando Valley). But Carson’s jab helped put Burbank on the map for millions of viewers and it is still a catch phrase today. 

These days Downtown Burbank is actually a nice area with a good mix of restaurants and a couple hundred shops. But when I moved there in 1982 it was a different story. Though Burbank is home to Disney Studios and The Burbank Studios (as well as NBC) back then there wasn’t even a single movie theater in the city. Just one drive-in theater near my Riverside Drive apartment. Today the drive-in theater is gone but there are over 30 movie screens in Burbank.

Once the theaters were built I remember going one night and standing in line for popcorn and there was an older gentleman in front of me who looked familiar. I asked him if he was Richard Farnsworth and he said he was. In those days I would have only known him as the actor in The Grey Fox (1982) and The Natural (1984). Little did I know that he was a full-fledged Hollywood legend having been a stunt man first and received his first film credit way back  in 1937.

It wasn’t until the Internet and IMDB that I learned he was in Gone with the Wind, A Day at the Races, Red River, The Ten Commandments, and The Wild One. Which meant he was connected in film history to Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, the Marx Brothers, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Cecil B. DeMille. He turned to acting after 30 years as a stuntman and received two Oscar nominations as Best Actor. 

His last film was The Straight Story (1999) which was directed by David Lynch and for which Farnsworth’s nomination made him the oldest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. The Straight Story was filmed right here in Iowa. You knew there had to be an Iowa angle, right?

And just for the record Johnny Carson was born Corning, Iowa and lived in southwest Iowa until he was 8 when his family moved to Nebraska.

Like many young people who moved to L.A. in the eighties I dreamed of getting on The Tonight Show and meeting Johnny Carson. Back in the day, that was seen as the pinacle of success. That never happened and I never even went to a single taping all the time I lived out there. But while going to film school I did work as a driver for a video equipment rental company and one day made a delivery to NBC.

I made a comment to the security guard about The Tonight Show and he asked if I wanted to see the set. Of course I did. So while not making it on the show, I did make it to the set. Almost famous.

And like a lot of things in life The Tonight Show set  seemed a lot smaller in real life. But thanks to Carson and Jay Leno for all the memories and humor they kept flowing from Burbank the last 37 years.

And best wishes to Conan in his new venture.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“When I used to look out at the world, all I could see was its edges, its boundaries, its rules and controls, its leaders and laws. But now, I see another world. A different world where all things are possible. A world of hope. Of peace.”
Neo
The Maxtrix

“It’s all for nothing if you don’t have freedom.”
William Wallace
Braveheart

“You cannot tell a meaningful story without the potential for loss.”
                                                                                      Robert McKee

“A good point of attack is where something vital is at stake at the very beginning of the play.”
Lajos Egri
The Art of Dramatic Writing

I don’t know if Monday’s immigration raid in Postville, Iowa made it on your radar but it was the largest single site raid in the history of this nation. Federal immigration agents arrested 390 people from Mexico, Guatemala, Israel and the Ukraine.

Let’s put the politics aside and look at this from a Screenwriting from Iowa  perspective. How you answer the question  “What’s at Stake?” has a big impact on your writing.

Recently I wrote about David Lynch being in a small town in Iowa known as a haven for transcendental meditators and I find Postville just as intriguing. The community was founded by those of German and Norwegian decent and they make up half of the town’s 2,500 people. The other half are mostly Hispanics who work for the Hasidic Jews who moved there from New York, so the place is a little surreal.

Yesterday I drove to Postville to shoot some footage and interviews for Univision, the Hispanic Network in Miami,  and the first two people I met to were a couple Jewish young men. We talked a little about the town and had a common connection talking about B&H Camera in New York.

The Hasidic Jews are in Postville because they own and run Agriprocessors the world’s largest kosher meatpacking plant and where Monday’s raid occurred. (As a side note, did you know that Coca-Cola makes a kosher Coke available for the Jewish Passover?  No high-fructose corn syrup used.)   The Mexicans and other immigrants are there to work in the meat packing plant. The Germans and the Norwegians are still in the area running the farms they and their families have been tending for over 100 years.

Stephen Bloom, author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America writes, “I look at Postville as a social laboratory to test the limits of diversity, tolerance, and acceptance.”

When I first pulled into Postville it looked like many small Midwest towns you drive through. But then you notice the Guatemalan restaurant and the Mexican clothing and convenience stores and know that there is something unique about this area. Then you wonder how the Hasidic Jews have adjusted to moving there from New York.

Bloom writes, “When the Hasidic community moved to Postville, they moved their entire ethos with them from Brooklyn to northeastern Iowa. They created immediately a shul or synagogue. They made two mikvehs, or ceremonial bath houses, as well as a yeshiva, or school for their children. They replicated in northeastern Iowa the community they had established in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So in my mind, they were not suffering any degree of cultural deprivation. They moved their world, lock, stock, and barrel, one thousand miles westward.”

Am I the only one who thinks that setting would be more a fascinating and original setting for a movie than say…”What Happens in Vegas”? In fact, What Happens in Postville sounds like a fine title. Witness meets La Bamba meets The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg with a dash of Ibsen and Wim Wenders. 

But what I really want to talk about is the concept in your screenplay of “What’s at Stake?” That is a key question of the stories you tell. Investors and studios long ago learned the secret of that question. Because at the core of the question “What’s at stake?” is the concept of what holds an audiences attention.

Writers are sometimes slow learners and can get caught up in the story, characters and dialogue they are writing. But “What’s at Stake?” is vital to ask when what’s at stake financially is a lot of money. “What’s at stake?” is related to the level of conflict I wrote about in tip #1.

If you take a long look ar AFI’s top 100 films you’ll notice that 70% of the films deal with life or death, or at least significant life and career blows. Great conflict.

Citizen Kane
Casablanca
The Godfather
Gone with the Wind
Lawrence of Arabia
The Wizard of Oz
On the Waterfront
Schindler’s List

When you talk about life and death a lot is at stake.

 “I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of last track myself. Being how this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you have to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’
                                                                                                         Dirty Harry

If you look at the all time box office hits you’ll find a majority also have life or death, or significant life or career blows.

Titanic
Star Wars
Spider-Man

E.T. (the immigrant from outerspace)
Lord of the Rings
Jurassic Park
Pirates of the Caribbean

No one said all successful movies had or needed to have this element but obviously it increases your odds of having an award winning film as well as one that finds a large audience.

Maybe that’s the simple secret to horror films and super hero films usually doing well at the box office.

As I made the hour and a half drove home from Postville yesterday I thought of all lives involved in Monday’s raid. Certainly surrounded by agents with guns and helicopters overhead was a dramatic and traumatic situation. Now many are separated from family members and facing deportation. Others face charges of identification tampering.

It made me recall my days in Miami when Haitians would risk their lives to come to the United States on overcrowded and poorly constructed boats. And sometimes they died in the process.

The mayor of Postville said if the meat packing plant closed then his town could become a ghost town. There is a lot at stake from many angles in Monday’s raid.

What’s at stake in the script you are now writing?

“What’s at stake?” is a significant question in life as well as drama.

copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”
Larry Gelbart (Tootsie)

yodaweb2.gif

Here’s the straight story. There are many screenwriting gurus out there and I thought I’d warn you about them. Actually, I just need to warn you about your addiction to them.

Back in November I was doing a video shoot in the Bay area and the fellow I was interviewing said he had a friend who worked at George Lucus’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) who might be able to give me a tour if I was interested. (Is there a reason I wouldn’t be interested?)  I took the photo of Yoda at the ILM headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco a couple of hours later during my Forrest Gump-like experience. Who doesn’t want a wise and powerful mentor to help guide them from the dark side? The trouble is always knowing who to trust.

A couple of years ago I spent seven months of my life producing real estate and financial infomercials. As far as infomercials go, these were big budget fares that were well done.

I’ve had worse gigs and definitely ones that paid less. It was a good experience as I worked with a talented group of people and learned a ton of production techniques. A common question my friends asked about the shows I was working on was “Are they true?”

Well, they weren’t really false, but they didn’t quite tell the whole truth. For instance the sound bite you heard on TV was, “I made $10,000 on my first deal.” What was edited out was this guy explaining how it took him two years to put together his first real estate deal. Another fellow said it was not uncommon for him to make 100 lowball real estate offers before one got accepted.

Infomercials never touch on how hard it is to make money because infomercials work emotionally on how easy things are to do. They skip showing the scenes of Rocky running up the stairs and pounding the beef.  Instead they pound the testimonials of how much money people say they have made until you hear what you want to hear. The executive producer where I worked was fond of saying, “There is no such thing as over-the-top in infomercials.”

Most of my work was focused on the success stories. Two-minute vignettes that showed how a person or couple used such and such products and became wealthy. In the business this is called a zero to hero story. (I have that in a folder of potential titles for a future script.)

A zero to hero is someone who was down on their luck, went to a seminar or ordered books and audio products and applied the principles and in a short time became wealthy. Who among us doesn’t yearn for the magic formula?

The history of this in our country goes way back to Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth in St. Augustine.  Come to think of it, in another time and place weren’t Adam and Eve just looking for a little more knowledge?

Infomercials have a tremendous failure rate and the ones that do succeed focus on just a few categories:

1)Kitchen & Cooking (George Forman Grill)

2)Beauty & Fitness (Chuck Norris and the Total Body Gym)

3)Self-improvement (Tony Robbins)

4)Making Money (Rich Dad, Poor Dad)

5)Leisure (Time –Life Music)

Basically they touch on our deepest longings in life to look good, feel healthy, and have money. You want to believe the infomercials, that’s why they work.

Here’s the problem as it applies to screenwriting seminars. We want to believe they will give us the missing link and make us a better writer.  Many writers are like crack addicts thinking the next book, workshop, audio series, writing software will make them a better writer. Just one more hit off the pipe and we’ll quit.

There may be a kernel of truth in books and seminars (my blogs are intended to pull out those kernels for you) but the fact is if you are reading or searching more for the secret of writing more than you are writing then you are heading down the wrong path.

John August the screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and a Drake graduate here in Iowa) wrote this on his website blog , “The truth is, there’s no magic formula for writing a great script. (Or for that matter, a commercial one.) Anyone who tries to convince you that theirs is the One True Way is deluding themselves and you.”

Robert McKee who wrote the book Story is the main screenwriting guru.  On his website he lists the number of major award winners and nominees who were his former students. (Of course, he taught at USC so many professors there could make the same claim. And those that have been to his workshop, I imagine have learned from other guru’s workshops and books as well.) But his advertising materials imply that he is the reason for their success and if you attend his class you’ll be walking down the aisle to accept your Academy Award.

After all,  didn’t one of his students Akiva Goldsman do just that? Well, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind does credits McKee’s class with helping him make the transition from novelist to screenwriter. But the fact is Goldsman has a MFA from NYU and was, by his own admission, a failed novelist for 10 years. And if he started writing as a teenager he probably had many teachers who he learned from, but more importantly he was writing. (Getting in his 10,000 hours of education and practice long before he took a three-day seminar with McKee.)

There’s a glaring problem in respect to gurus and I’m not the first to point it out. Take McKee for instance, he’s not only not won an Academy Award he’s never had a feature screenplay of his produced. Ever. Zero. If it was all formula you think he’d have had one hit movie made in his lifetime.  McKee’s is an academic and people with Ph.Ds are analytical by nature. McKee is brilliant in telling students why a film works. Many critics can do so just as well, they just don’t have the theatrics or business acumen that McKee has to become a screenwriting guru.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that McKee is a bad writer or that he hasn’t sold any scripts before, or that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m just stating a fact and making an observation. With McKee there is a disconnect, a gap between what he knows and what he’s done. (I’m sure if one of his feature scripts gets made, he’ll die a happy man. But then again, if it’s not a good movie it could damage his whole legacy.)

August writes, “To read his brochure, you’d think that everyone in Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has. Wherever I hear his name brought up, it makes these tiny hairs rise on the back of my neck, because it usually means the speaker is going to cite some piece of screenwriting gospel, or use some cleaver word like “counter-theme.”

McKee does such a through job of breaking down Casablanca you think that its writers attended his seminar, until you realize the movie was made before he was born. He also does a several hour breakdown of Chinatown.

“I’ve never met McKee and have nothing against him, but to read his bio it’s clear that he’s not a very successful screenwriter and never really was,“ August continues on his blog, “That’s not to say he can’t be a great teacher, just as many great film critics are not filmmakers, nor do I think that there’s anything wrong with a screenwriting class per se, especially if it helps you get off your ass and write. But I would rather have dental surgery than go through a structural analysis of CHINATOWN.”

That is the fundamental difference between successful screenwriting gurus and successful writers. It’s like the engineer who builds the car and knows how it works and the race car driver who takes that engineering feat and does something amazing with it. But there is a tension there, and it’s rare to find a person who can do both well.

In fact, if you took the five top screenwriting gurus you might find five produced films between them. Maybe. And of those five films, you would have five films that were little known and/or poorly reviewed. That’s why they’re doing seminars, because there is more money to be made teaching this stuff than writing screenplays. (Or more nicely put, their real gift is in teaching.) And the flip side is even if the working screenwriter took the time off writing to do a seminar the chances are it wouldn’t be very good. (Joe Eszterhas has been a screenwriting box office rock star, but I’d recommend McKee’s book Story over the one Eszterhas wrote to help screenwriters (The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood).

In the book Screenplay; Writing the Picture (Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs) make this observation:
“It is interesting to note that few Hollywood screenwriting gurus have ever sold a movie (and Aristotle never wrote a play). This is because the ability to structure a story and the ability to analyze the structure of a story are two totally different talents. They come from different parts of the brain…Good writers seldom have an analytical understanding of what they do or how they do it. Instead they have a practical understanding of dramatic techniques.”

 

And screenwriters learn those practical techniques in a class, seminar or book and if that teacher finds a larger audience he or she becomes a guru. It’s a beautiful thing. Just don’t kid your self into thinking that the guru is the answer. Writing and rewriting is the answer. If you forget that you are lost and can become dependent on a guru…and then the next guru.

 

McKee is so popular in some circles he could form a cult if he wanted to. Americans love gurus. I’m a fan of business guru Tom Peters, marketing guru Seth Godin, and even McKee himself.

I attended one of McKee’s first public seminars on screenwriting. The year was 1984 or ’85 in Los Angeles. (Back when he was a guru in training. And back when he didn’t just read from his book as I hear he does today.) I was a recent film school grad, working as a photographer, and studying acting and hungry for my break in the industry and didn’t blink at the cost that at that time equaled a week’s salary. In fact, I still have the tapes from that seminar and have listened to them many times over the years.

McKee’s insights into screenwriting were more articulate than anyone I had ever heard speak on film. It is a class that I recommend to this day, but it’s best if you have at least a script or two under your belt. Because there is a danger there. As Morpheus says in The Matrix, “There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.”

Speaking of gurus did you see where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died earlier this month?

He was famous for (temporarily) being the guru to the Beatles in the 60’s and bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM) to this country in the 50’s.  Few people realize that in 1974 he started a college in Fairfield, Iowa that is still there today.

Fairfield is one of the most interesting places in the US. Mother Earth News called it one of the “12 Great Places You’ve Never Hear Of.” The article said, “Your image of southeast Iowa probably doesn’t include the world’s premier ayurvedic health spa, more restaurants per capita than San Francisco or 25 art galleries on the downtown square but these are some of the many features of Fairfield, a surprisingly sustainable and cosmopolitan town.” (It’s also about an hour away from the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop that keeps coming up on this blog.)

Fairfield is also home to Hawthorne Communications whose founder Timothy Hawthorne literally wrote the book on infomercials. After I moved to Iowa and was looking for production work there I naturally met with Hawthorne. No work came out of it but he was kind enough to give me a copy of his out-of-print book “The Complete Guide to Infomercial Marketing”  that he told me was fetching $125. on ebay.

And to bring this full circle back to movies, David Lynch was a follower of the Maharishi and makes occasional trips to Fairfield. I’m sure there is some connection there and his directing The Straight Story featuring Richard Farnsworth as an elderly man who drives a riding lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother. (Watch that film again and ask yourself how Lynch’s practicing TM for 30 years effects that material. And I dare you to watch the Catholic-influenced Koyaanisqatsi in the same night.)

There is no doubt that Lynch is an artist and one of America’s most original filmmakers. The “I am not an animal” scene from The Elephant Man is one of the most moving scenes recorded on film.  From the first time I saw Eraserhead in a college film class my perception of what movies could be was altered.

But I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag by saying that Lynch’s work at times can be a little hard to understand.

I believe enough in cross-pollination to think that a trip to Fairfield might do McKee some good and if Lynch could sit though McKee’s seminar it might also do him an ounce of good.  I’d pay to watch those guys in a room debating story structure and the roll of screenwriting gurus.

By the way, anyone interested in employment or an internship at ILM check out this section of their website: www.ilm.com/employment.html

Photo and text © Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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